Are audiences playing a joke on Hollywood’s biggest comedy stars?
As Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis open their new movie,"The Campaign,” this weekend, they’re trying to woo a filmgoing audience that has been voting — with its feet — against comedies this season.
Nearly all of their fellow big-name comedians have struggled at the box office recently. Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller bombed with “The Watch” two weeks ago. Adam Sandler, as close to a golden boy this comedic century has seen, flopped in June with the gross-out father-son pic “That’s My Boy,” his second consecutive disappointment after last year’s “Jack & Jill.” Jason Segel, who has built a solid fan base with bromantic comedies like"I Love You, Man,” couldn’t push"The Five-Year Engagement” past the $30-million mark this spring.
Instead, this year’s biggest comedy hit has been the unlikely"Ted,” a movie whose breakout star is a potty-mouthed virtual teddy bear. “Ted” has made $205 million at the domestic box office, more than double the take of “That’s My Boy,” “Engagement” and “Watch” combined.
The results have some in Hollywood wondering whether there may be a fundamental shift taking place away from star-driven comedies.
American moviegoers have long had a love affair with comedic actors, from the Marx Bros. and Bob Hope to “Saturday Night Live” alumni such as Eddie Murphy and Sandler, flocking to theaters again and again to watch these comedians do their trademark routines, despite and sometimes even because it is familiar.
But in an era when seemingly anyone can be funny on YouTube, and when there’s an abundance of A-list comedians on TV and the Web, the idea of paying money to watch a particular big-screen comedian one more time may be on the wane.
“You can see a guy do impressions on Comedy Central or the Internet all day long now,” said Sony Pictures Classics’ Tom Bernard, the executive behind Woody Allen’s intelligentsia-comedy hit"Midnight in Paris.” “I think ‘Midnight’ and ‘Ted’ show people want something smart and different when they go to a movie theater.”
Vincent Bruzzese, president of the motion-picture group at Ipsos Media, an industry research firm, said situations, and not star power, now seem to drive the genre.
And with technology now allowing people to share clips and funny scenes, moviegoers who once relied on marquee names to pick what to see are more likely to take a chance on comedies with unknowns, he said, citing films such as"Bridesmaids"and the first “Hangover.”
Studios have responded by putting more effort into developing concept-driven comedies, such as this spring’s low-budget"Project X"(which featured no recognizable actors and costWarner Bros.$12 million, but brought in $100 million worldwide) or a “Ted"-like decision this week by Sony Pictures Animation to develop a movie based on the wisecracking 1980s alien furball “Alf.”
Scott Stuber, who has produced numerous comedies for Universal — including “Ted,” Vaughn’s “The Break-Up” and"Couples Retreat,"and Owen Wilson’s “You, Me and Dupree” — believes the landscape is shifting.
“Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler are funny, charismatic actors and will continue to be,” he said. “But the audience wants new and original things. We’re all challenged by that.”
Neither of the main human stars in “Ted” — Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis — are known for comedy; they essentially played the straight men in the film. The “new and original” came in the form of a stuffed toy that simulates sex acts and acts purely on id. If the film did have a brand name, it wasn’t an actor but its writer-director, Seth MacFarlane, creator of the animated TV show “Family Guy.”
Other successful comedies in the last few years have fallen into a similar category as “Ted.” In 2011, the Kristen Wiig- and Judd Apatow-guided “Bridesmaids” offered the appeal of seeing women who were not movie stars joking grossly then bonding sweetly, a fresh twist on Apatow’s male-centric formula.
Meanwhile, the Jason Bateman-Charlie Day-Jason Sudeikis workplace comedy"Horrible Bosses,” another big comedy hit last summer, also eschewed conventional film-comedy stars in favor of an intoxicating (if not completely novel) concept: offing one’s cruel supervisor.
This year, the March release “21 Jump Street,"which took in nearly $140 million at the box office, drew its originality from the casting itself. At first glance the movie didn’t seem to offer much of a new concept — it’s a buddy cop comedy based on a television series. But the filmmakers made a more unexpected choice in casting Channing Tatum, a hunky actor who was best known for cheesy romance flicks and action films, opposite Jonah Hill.
“Channing would always say that he wasn’t the ‘seventh bite of steak’ — meaning that by the time you get to the seventh bite of steak, it’s not as fantastic as your first bite of steak,” said “21 Jump Street” co-director Chris Miller, referring to comedic actors who’ve been plying their trade for a long time. “He was fresh to comedy.”
While many dramas and action films can reap 60% or 70% of their overall revenue from overseas, American comedies frequently do not travel as well, adding to the pressure on studios to contain costs and reexamine big paydays for stars. The budget for the star-laden “The Watch” was estimated at nearly $70 million. “The Hangover,"in contrast, whose actors were relative unknowns before it became a colossal hit, cost only about $35 million. (A few comedians do have international followings; Sacha Baron Cohen, for instance, often does well abroad; his"The Dictator” pulled in only $59 million in the U.S., but $108 million overseas.)
The fading of many big comedy stars can be seen as part of a larger trend away from actor vehicles across genres — consider how the “Twilight,” “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” franchises made many of their actors into stars, instead of the other way around.
Still, studios aren’t giving up on stars entirely, and “The Campaign” is a case in point. Though Ferrell has had his box office ups and downs, he’s had four live-action comedies top $100 million domestically since 2006, and Warner Bros. is hoping that he’s still someone who can draw fans to the multiplex. The studio spent about $60 million on the political farce. It has generated fairly positive reviews and is expected to take in $30 million during its first three days in theaters.
Fox is currently shooting a new project with Vaughn and Wilson called “The Internship” that seeks to rekindle their 7-year-old “Wedding Crashers” magic, while Paramount recently signed on for a new Baron Cohen spoof.
Some in Hollywood believe that what’s happening now in comedy is not a fundamental shift but a generational one. If the likes of Sandler and Stiller are faltering, they say, younger talent will ultimately step in to take their place.
But they’ll have to be careful that these younger stars aren’t the same act in different packaging.
“Audiences want something that feels new,” said Miller. “If it feels like a tired re-tread, they’re not going to shell out the $35 dollars or whatever it costs to see a movie.”
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